Mitch McConnell is worried that he might be relegated to Senate minority leader next year. But he’s far less concerned about a group of rabble-rousing Senate candidates from his own party building their campaigns on attacking him.
Take his un-McConnellesque, “Narcos”-inspired tweet kicking Don Blankenship after his loss in the West Virginia primary: Dressed like Pablo Escobar, McConnell told the ex-convict and coal baron “Thanks for playing.” McConnell has no regrets about poking a candidate who had dubbed him “Cocaine Mitch” and is now vowing to run as a third-party candidate in a move seemingly driven by revenge.
“I enjoyed it, actually,” McConnell said of the viral tweet in an interview on Thursday. “It sorta softened my image, don’t you think?”
Similar challenges await in Mississippi from state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who is running against incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and in an open Arizona race, where McConnell plainly wants Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) to beat Joe Arpaio and Kelli Ward, both on the extreme right of the GOP spectrum.
“In Mississippi we’re certainly going to be fine,” McConnell said. “What’s going to happen in Arizona is obviously a very competitive general election. We won’t have a nominee until the end of August. But it’s pretty obvious which of our candidates have a best chance of winning.”
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund rained down $1.3 million on Blankenship to stop him from winning the nomination, and McConnell wouldn’t rule out intervening in Arizona if needed. Holding the open Arizona seat as well as competitive races in Nevada and Tennessee are the GOP keys to keeping the majority, and the GOP leader is intently focused on them.
“It’s very much in play. If you look at history, it’s pretty clear that two years into any new administration is dicey territory for the party of the president. I don’t think this year will be any different. The wind is going to be in our face,” McConnell said. “We have three vulnerabilities: Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.”
Despite Blankenship’s planned third-party bid, McConnell said he‘s optimistic about the GOP’s chances to topple Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in November, citing a recent poll that showed the race nearly tied. But the Kentuckian is clear-eyed about the high degree of difficulty involved in beating incumbents — even Democrats whose states President Donald Trump carried by double digits in 2016.
“Even though incumbents can be defeated, most of the time it’s hard. So I think a realistic assessment of the landscape is, yes, the Senate certainly is in play,” McConnell said.
McConnell continues to view the Ohio and Pennsylvania Senate races as below the top tier of Republican pickup opportunities this fall, though he said he’s “keeping a close eye on” challengers to Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.).
Outside conservative groups have dumped millions of dollars into the Wisconsin Senate race, where two Republicans are clashing ahead of an August primary battle for the right to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). But McConnell didn’t mention the race as he ticked off a list of six states where he believes Republicans can beat Democratic incumbents: Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida.
As favorable as the Senate GOP’s 2018 map appears, McConnell said, “You’ve still got to win them one at a time.”
While much of his party’s attention is focused on keeping the House, with the prospect of a Trump impeachment attempt looming if Democrats take back that chamber, McConnell also offered a reminder that maintaining Senate control is vital to Trump’s agenda.
“If we’re able to hold the Senate, the president’s — in my view — outstanding appointments are likely to be confirmed for the four years of his term,” McConnell said. “So I think holding the Senate has a huge impact on the success of the administration.”
His own reelection bid is a secondary matter for the majority leader, though he said he plans to run again in 2020. Democrats are excited about this week’s primary win by Amy McGrath, a charismatic military veteran who will challenge Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) in the fall. But McConnell gave no hint of whether he expects a serious reelection battle in two years.
“2020 is a long way away,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in 2018 first.”